(photo credit: Irving Spitz)
ROME – Cremation represented one of the usual burial practices for pagan Romans.
With the emergence of Christianity, burials began to take place in catacombs.
This word is derived from the Greek meaning “within the quarries.” Catacombs are
underground cemeteries consisting of intricate labyrinths or tunnels with
recesses for burial chambers.
There are more than 60 sites of catacombs
in Rome which date from the end of the second to the early fifth century
The vast majority of catacombs represent the final resting places of
Christians, but there are also several of Jewish origin. One of these is
situated in the gardens of the Villa Torlonia in the northeast of Rome.
villa was built in the first half of the 19th century for the wealthy
Torlonia family. In 1929 it was taken over by the Fascist dictator
Mussolini. After his death in 1945, the villa and the gardens remained
for many years, but have now been restored and are open to the public.
1918, while conducting alterations in the very extensive gardens,
stumbled on ancient catacombs.
Excavations revealed two separate
catacombs which had been united. This was shown to be a large burial
the Jews of the period. These catacombs are currently closed to the
public. I was fortunate to be taken on a tour by Cristiana-Barbara
press representative of Atlazio, an agency which promotes tourism in
Simona Morretta, a senior archeologist from Rome’s State Archeological
The long narrow passageways are surrounded on both sides by
multiple levels of niches, or loculi
carved out of the rock. These loculi
extend from the ceiling to the floor.
Bodies were placed in these niches
which were then sealed with rubble and bricks and then coated over with a
of lime. In addition there is also a geniza
a depository where holy documents
were deposited. These catacombs are extensive, extending for more than
square meters with over 1,000 meters of galleries on the two floors. To
them, one has to descend a series of stairs.
THE MAIN interest in these
catacombs is the plethora of beautiful colored frescos on the walls and
the vaulted ceilings. These represent characteristic iconographic Jewish
and many are in an excellent state of preservation. These include the
seven-branched menora, shofar, ark with the law tablets, etrog, lulav,
circumcision knife, cruse of oil and matzot. There are also depictions
possibly represent the façade of the Temple destroyed in 70 CE by
Additional frescoes include geometric patterns, grapevines, birds,
plants and fish. These are not specific to Jewish catacombs and are also
those of Christian origin. Not unexpectedly, there are no depictions of
consistent with the Ten Commandments which prohibited displays of graven
There are also stamped tiles with the name of the ancient Roman
Interestingly enough, the inscriptions found in these and other
Jewish catacombs are in Greek and not Hebrew.
Radiocarbon testing using
organic material incorporated during the construction of the catacombs
conducted by Prof. Leonard V. Rutgers. This revealed that these
from about 100 BCE (Rutgers et al., Nature
2005). According to Rutgers, these
specific catacombs came into general use in the first century and
Christian catacombs by at least 100 years. This implies that burial of
in catacombs may have begun as a Jewish custom and that it was
adopted by the Christians.
On the other hand, it should be noted that
other archeological findings such as oil lamps found in the catacombs of
Torlonia date from the end of the second to the early fifth century CE.
question of the precise dating of these catacombs is not definitely
should be remembered that the Roman Jewish Diaspora community is the
oldest in the world and dates back to the first century BCE. Jews would
likely chosen to bury rather than cremate their dead since cremation is
prohibited by Jewish law. Roman jurisdiction forbade burial places in
itself and in view of the scarcity of land, catacombs were established
soft volcanic rock outside the city walls.
Today the extensive gardens of
Villa Torlonia are a large municipal park. The villa itself is opulently
The central feature is the two-story high ballroom and vault,
lined with paintings, stuccoes and marbles. On the second floor is
bedroom with the original furniture.
The management of the catacombs was
originally under the direction of the Pontifical Commission of Sacred
Archeology. The current custodian is Rome’s State Archeological
Because of dangers of rock falls, noxious gases and the issue of
the frescoes, these catacombs are closed to the general
Discussions are currently under way with archeologists and the
Jewish authorities in Rome with a view of eventually opening this
place to tourists. It is anticipated that the restoration of the
Villa Torlonia will begin at the end of current year.The writer,
emeritus professor of medicine, is an avid traveler and photographer. He
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